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Millions of fake Google Maps listings hurt real business and consumers

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Google Maps carries approximately 11 million illegitimate local listings, with hundreds of thousands more getting created each month, the Wall Street Journal reported this week. These fake listings push real businesses further down the local search results, impacting their ability to reach customers and make unsuspecting users easy targets for scammers.

Google says it is aware of the problem and that it has plans to do more to combat spammers and scammers taking advantage of local listings. It’s not in the company’s interest to jeopardize user trust, yet as many marketers point out, it stands to profit as local businesses turn to paid ads to regain search visibility.

“Duress vertical” scams and spammy business names

First, a look at the problem. The majority of car repair, towing, electricians, contractors, attorneys, movers and other service categories aren’t located at the addresses shown in Google Maps, according to a survey of experts conducted by the WSJ. Internally at Google, the paper reprted, these categories are termed “duress verticals,” for their proclivity to scams built to ensnare victims when they’re most vulnerable.

These bogus businesses flood local search results by setting up fake profiles in Google My Business (GMB), the free service that powers the business listings in Google Search and Maps. This dilutes search visibility for legitimate business listings, robbing them of potential customers, and puts users in a position to be scammed.

Google’s failure to take down fake business listings and verify real ones is a frustration for many business owners and marketers. Joe Youngblood, an SEO and digital marketer, has been vocal about the problems legitimate businesses face with Google My Business. “Hey @GoogleMyBiz still have several real businesses with suspended accounts, meanwhile fake spam companies with Virtual Office addresses are popping up everywhere. It’s been almost a full week, can you please respond to these??,” Youngblood tweeted this week.

The problem isn’t always as black and white as fake and real local listings, either. As digital marketer Itamar Blauer pointed out, real businesses are also stuffing keywords into their Google My Business profiles in order to rank higher on generic local searches (e.g., “oil change” or “personal injury lawyer”).

Google’s guidelines state, “Your name should reflect your business’ real-world name, as used consistently on your storefront, website, stationery, and as known to customers.” It also instructs businesses to include details like address and service area, business hours, and categories of the other sections of your business.

“The underlying concept of this is that there don’t seem to be consequences for keyword stuffing in GMB listings, as Optimise London have shown that even after Google accepted my edit – they simply added the keywords in again,” Blauer said.

The impact of this manipulation isn’t limited to local search results either. The screenshot below shows that, by adding “SEO Agency” to its business name in GMB, an agency managed to get featured in a knowledge panel for the generic search term “digital seo agency.”

bogus-local-listing-knowledge-panel
The top screenshot shows how an agency was able to gain a knowledge panel for the non-brand search term “digital seo agency” by putting “SEO Agency” in its GMB profile. Even after the spammy name was reported, the knowledge panel remained, as shown in the second screenshot.

“Now the knowledge graph picks up their GMB for ‘Digital SEO Agency,’ which shouldn’t be allowed and is only the case because of their GMB title,” Blauer explained. Even after the listing was corrected, the company’s listing remained in the knowledge panel, despite ranking seventh in the standard organic listings.

“Right now the name of the business has a huge impact, and fake listings just use target keywords, leading to massive gains,” Youngblood explained. Last year, he ran an experiment that revealed that on average, spamming or keyword stuffing the GMB business name helped a location improve by at least 9.53 ranking positions.

How Google got into this situation

Some marketers say Google didn’t take the problem of listing authenticity seriously enough from the start. “As those of us in the YP [yellow pages] industry watched Google enter into providing local business information, we thought they had quite a bit of hubris,” Chris Silver Smith, formerly a technical liaison for a deal between Superpages and Google Maps and now president and strategist at Argent Media, said.

“There was a naivete in much of their approach that translated into all sorts of goofs and errors over time. Instead of hiring people who were highly familiar with the issues inherent, they primarily hired computer science grads, fresh out of school, and treated the database with less seriousness at the beginning than should have been the case — far more priority was placed on the user experience than virtually anything else.”

Silver Smith also said that Google has over-emphasized having brick-and-mortar locations in their ranking algorithm — despite the fact that many service providers don’t need office space because they work on-site at their customers’ locations. According to Silver Smith, the heavy weighting of that factor makes it makes it more difficult for service providers that don’t need a physical location to achieve high rankings, ultimately incentivizing them to set up fake listings just to be represented equivalently to businesses with street addresses.

Google’s responses

In 2017, a Google-sponsored study by researchers from the University of California, San Diego concluded that just 0.5% of the local searches they looked at contained false listings. Search consultant Mike Blumenthal called the results “meaningless,” partially due to the limited and skewed data that Google provided. Danny Huang, the study’s lead author, who was also a paid Google intern at the time, acknowledged, “All I was doing was eyeballing in a scientific manner.”

Shortly after the WSJ article was published, Google emphasized in blog post its ongoing efforts to address Maps spam and scammers, saying it has taken down over three million fake business profiles, of which more than 90% were removed before they could be seen by users. It also stated that it is donating settlement funds from lawsuits against bad actors to organizations that educate consumers and businesses about fraud, and reiterated that users can flag profiles for removal.  

The company added that it’s developing new ways — both manual and automated — to fight scammers, but kept specifics under wraps, explaining “we can’t share too many details about these efforts without running the risk of actually helping scammers find new ways to beat our systems—which defeats the purpose of all the work we do.”

The company has also signaled it may start charging for Google My Business features. In April, it sent a survey to some local businesses asking if they would be willing to pay a monthly subscription fee.

The winners and losers

“The winners are pretty clear, it’s Google and the spammers,” said Dan Leibson, vice president of search for Local SEO Guide Inc., pointing out that spammers are siphoning off customers and Google is cashing in on ads bought by businesses trying to get their listings to appear above the spammers’.

“Everyone else is losing in some way. The least affected type of business is probably large, multi-location brands as simple spam signals will have a hard time outranking the true relevance and prominence of these businesses,” Leibson continued, stating that a fabricated series of “hardware stores near me” listings would be unlikely to supplant The Home Depot from search results.

The frequency of fake listings may also impact consumer preferences. Customers who might otherwise support local businesses may instead choose to play it safe by patronizing larger, more well-known companies, making reaching new customers even more of an uphill battle for small or emerging brands.

Legitimate local businesses also have to compete with each other for whatever customers are left. It’s possible that the practice of adding keywords to a GMB profile was initially a method to regain organic visibility and fend off fake listings, but it has also put other small businesses in a worse position — especially if they want to play by the rules.

What we can do and what needs to be done

“Standing out in a sea of fake listings will be all about building a brand and diversifying your local presence,” Youngblood advised, “I typically recommend clients focus on Google, Bing, Facebook, Yelp, at least one vertical, and of course their own website.”

“We also recommend that clients engage locally. Find popular social media accounts in the local area and engage with them (not necessarily ‘influencers’), support non-profits such as community radio, dog rescues, theaters, and homeless charities,” Youngblood said, adding that, “You never know when Google or another platform will suspend your listing, so making sure you’re gaining reviews on other sites consumers might find while researching is important.”

“The best way businesses can stand out is to outrank the spammers and have a legitimate brand,” Leibson concurred, concluding that (in addition to reporting fake listings and being vocal) users and businesses can even raise the issue with their elected representatives — an increasingly viable option as Google continues to make headlines for anti-competitive behavior.

Of course, Google can better enforce its current policies and change its algorithms to hinder current spam tactics. Marketers and SEOs are also quick to offer solutions ranging from deemphasizing GMB profile names within search algorithms to requiring vocational licenses as part of the registration process to having users upload a proof of purchase before they can leave a review.

“Google’s success and market dominance mean that it bears a higher responsibility than merely throwing together jumbles of business listings on maps and leaving it up to consumers to discern which may be real or false,” Silver Smith said.

The company’s dominance stems from its search algorithms and the services and systems built around them. As long as those systems exist, there are those that will seek to exploit them at the expense of honest participants. Fortunately, there are solutions. Marketers and business owners must continue pushing Google to prioritize them.


About The Author

George Nguyen is an Associate Editor at Third Door Media. His background is in content marketing, journalism, and storytelling.

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Restaurant app Tobiko goes old school by shunning user reviews

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You can think of Tobiko as a kind of anti-Yelp. Launched in 2018 by Rich Skrenta, the restaurant app relies on data and expert reviews (rather than user reviews) to deliver a kind of curated, foodie-insider experience.

A new Rich Skrenta project. Skrenta is a search veteran with several startups behind him. He was one of the founders of DMOZ, a pioneering web directory that was widely used. Most recently Skrenta was the CEO of human-aided search engine Blekko, whose technology was sold to IBM Watson in roughly 2015.

At the highest level, both DMOZ and Blekko sought to combine human editors and search technology. Tobiko is similar; it uses machine learning, crawling and third-party editorial content to offer restaurant recommendations.

Tobiko screenshots

Betting on expert opinion. Tobiko is also seeking to build a community, and user input will likely factor into recommendations at some point. However, what’s interesting is that Skrenta has shunned user reviews in favor of “trusted expert reviews” (read: critics).

Those expert reviews are represented by a range of publisher logos on profile pages that, when clicked, take the user to reviews or articles about the particular restaurant on those sites. Where available, users can also book reservations. And the app can be personalized by engaging a menu of preferences. (Yelp recently launched broad, site-wide personalization itself.)

While Skrenta is taking something of a philosophical stand in avoiding user reviews, his approach also made the app easier to launch because expert content on third-party sites already existed. Community content takes much longer to reach critical mass. However, Tobiko also could have presented or “summarized” user reviews from third-party sites as Google does in knowledge panels, with TripAdvisor or Facebook for example.

Tobiko is free and currently appears to have no ads. The company also offers a subscription-based option that has additional features.

Why we should care. It’s too early to tell whether Tobiko will succeed, but it provocatively bucks conventional wisdom about the importance of user reviews in the restaurant vertical (although reading lots of expert reviews can be burdensome). As they have gained importance, reviews have become somewhat less reliable, with review fraud on the rise. Last month, Google disclosed an algorithm change that has resulted in a sharp decrease in rich review results showing in Search.

Putting aside gamesmanship and fraud, reviews have brought transparency to online shopping but can also make purchase decisions more time-consuming. It would be inaccurate to say there’s widespread “review fatigue,” but there’s anecdotal evidence supporting the simplicity of expert reviews in some cases. Influencer marketing can be seen as an interesting hybrid between user and expert reviews, though it’s also susceptible to manipulation.


About The Author

Greg Sterling is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes about the connections between digital and offline commerce. He previously held leadership roles at LSA, The Kelsey Group and TechTV. Follow him Twitter or find him on LinkedIn.



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3 Ways to Use XPaths with Large Site Audits

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When used creatively, XPaths can help improve the efficiency of auditing large websites. Consider this another tool in your SEO toolbelt.

There are endless types of information you can unlock with XPaths, which can be used in any category of online business.

Some popular ways to audit large sites with XPaths include:

In this guide, we’ll cover exactly how to perform these audits in detail.

What Are XPaths?

Simply put, XPath is a syntax that uses path expressions to navigate XML documents and identify specified elements.

This is used to find the exact location of any element on a page using the HTML DOM structure.

We can use XPaths to help extract bits of information such as H1 page titles, product descriptions on ecommerce sites, or really anything that’s available on a page.

While this may sound complex to many people, in practice, it’s actually quite easy!

How to Use XPaths in Screaming Frog

In this guide, we’ll be using Screaming Frog to scrape webpages.

Screaming Frog offers custom extraction methods, such as CSS selectors and XPaths.

It’s entirely possible to use other means to scrape webpages, such as Python. However, the Screaming Frog method requires far less coding knowledge.

(Note: I’m not in any way currently affiliated with Screaming Frog, but I highly recommend their software for web scraping.)

Step 1: Identify Your Data Point

Figure out what data point you want to extract.

For example, let’s pretend Search Engine Journal didn’t have author pages and you wanted to extract the author name for each article.

What you’ll do is:

  • Right-click on the author name.
  • Select Inspect.
  • In the dev tools elements panel, you will see your element already highlighted.
  • Right-click the highlighted HTML element and go to Copy and select Copy XPath.

2 copy xpath

At this point, your computer’s clipboard will have the desired XPath copied.

Step 2: Set up Custom Extraction

In this step, you will need to open Screaming Frog and set up the website you want to crawl. In this instance, I would enter the full Search Engine Journal URL.

  • Go to Configuration > Custom > Extraction

3 setup xpath extraction

  • This will bring up the Custom Extraction configuration window. There are a lot of options here, but if you’re looking to simply extract text, match your configuration to the screenshot below.

4 configure xpath extraction

Step 3: Run Crawl & Export

At this point, you should be all set to run your crawl. You’ll notice that your custom extraction is the second to last column on the right.

When analyzing crawls in bulk, it makes sense to export your crawl into an Excel format. This will allow you to apply a variety of filters, pivot tables, charts, and anything your heart desires.

3 Creative Ways XPaths Help Scale Your Audits

Now that we know how to run an XPath crawl, the possibilities are endless!

We have access to all of the answers, now we just need to find the right questions.

  • What are some aspects of your audit that could be automated?
  • Are there common elements in your content silos that can be extracted for auditing?
  • What are the most important elements on your pages?

The exact problems you’re trying to solve may vary by industry or site type. Below are some unique situations where XPaths can make your SEO life easier.

1. Using XPaths with Redirect Maps

Recently, I had to redesign a site that required a new URL structure. The former pages all had parameters as the URL slug instead of the page name.

This made creating a redirect map for hundreds of pages a complete nightmare!

So I thought to myself, “How can I easily identify each page at scale?”

After analyzing the various page templates, I came to the conclusion that the actual title of the page looked like an H1 but was actually just large paragraph text. This meant that I couldn’t just get the standard H1 data from Screaming Frog.

However, XPaths would allow me to copy the exact location for each page title and extract it in my web scraping report.

In this case I was able to extract the page title for all of the old URLs and match them with the new URLs through the VLOOKUP function in Excel. This automated most of the redirect map work for me.

With any automated work, you may have to perform some spot checking for accuracy.

2. Auditing Ecommerce Sites with XPaths

Auditing Ecommerce sites can be one of the more challenging types of SEO auditing. There are many more factors to consider, such as JavaScript rendering and other dynamic elements.

Sometimes, stakeholders will need product level audits on an ad hoc basis. Sometimes this covers just categories of products, but sometimes it may be the entire site.

Using the XPath extraction method we learned earlier in this article, we can extract all types of data including:

  • Product name
  • Product description
  • Price
  • Review data
  • Image URLs
  • Product Category
  • And much more

This can help identify products that may be lacking valuable information within your ecommerce site.

The cool thing about Screaming Frog is that you can extract multiple data points to stretch your audits even further.

3. Auditing Blogs with XPaths

This is a more common method for using XPaths. Screaming Frog allows you to set parameters to crawl specific subfolders of sites, such as blogs.

However, using XPaths, we can go beyond simple meta data and grab valuable insights to help identify content gap opportunities.

Categories & Tags

One of the most common ways SEO professionals use XPaths for blog auditing is scraping categories and tags.

This is important because it helps us group related blogs together, which can help us identify content cannibalization and gaps.

This is typically the first step in any blog audit.

Keywords

This step is a bit more Excel-focused and advanced. How this works, is you set up an XPath extraction to pull the body copy out of each blog.

Fair warning, this may drastically increase your crawl time.

Whenever you export this crawl into Excel, you will get all of the body text in one cell. I highly recommend that you disable text wrapping, or your spreadsheet will look terrifying.

Next, in the column to the right of your extracted body copy, enter the following formula:

=ISNUMBER(SEARCH("keyword",A1))

In this formula, A1 equals the cell of the body copy.

To scale your efforts, you can have your “keyword” equal the cell that contains your category or tag. However, you may consider adding multiple columns of keywords to get a more accurate and robust picture of your blogging performance.

This formula will present a TRUE/FALSE Boolean value. You can use this to quickly identify keyword opportunities and cannibalization in your blogs.

Author

We’ve already covered this example, but it’s worth noting that this is still an important element to pull from your articles.

When you blend your blog export data with performance data from Google Analytics and Search Console, you can start to determine which authors generate the best performance.

To do this, sort your blogs by author and start tracking average data sets including:

  • Impressions – Search Console
  • Clicks – Search Console
  • Sessions – Analytics
  • Bounce Rate – Analytics
  • Conversions – Analytics
  • Assisted Conversions – Analytics

Share Your Creative XPath Tips

Do you have some creative auditing methods that involve XPaths? Share this article on Twitter or tag me @seocounseling and let me know what I missed!

More Resources:


Image Credits

All screenshots taken by author, October 2019



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When parsing ‘Googlespeak’ is a distraction

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Over the almost 16-years of covering search, specifically what Googlers have said in terms of SEO and ranking topics, I have seen my share of contradictory statements. Google’s ranking algorithms are complex, and the way one Googler explains something might sound contradictory to how another Googler talks about it. In reality, they are typically talking about different things or nuances.

Some of it is semantics, some of it is being literal in how one person might explain something while another person speaks figuratively. Some of it is being technically correct versus trying to dumb something down for general practitioners or even non-search marketers to understand. Some of it is that the algorithm can change over the years, so what was true then has evolved.

Does it matter if something is or is not a ranking factor? It can be easy to get wrapped up in details that end up being distractions. Ultimately, SEOs, webmasters, site owners, publishers and those that produce web pages need to care more about providing the best possible web site and web page for the topic. You do not want to chase algorithms and racing after what is or is not a ranking factor. Google’s stated aim is to rank the most relevant results to keep users happy and coming back to the search engine. How Google does that changes over time. It releases core updates, smaller algorithm updates, index updates and more all the time.

For SEOs, the goal is to make sure your pages offer the most authoritative and relevant content for the given query and can be accessed by search crawlers.

When it is and is not a ranking factor. An example of Googlers seeming to contradict themselves popped this week.

Gary Illyes from Google said at Pubcon Thursday that content accuracy is a ranking factor. That raised eyebrows because in past Google has seemed to say content accuracy is not a ranking factor. Last month Google’s Danny Sullivan said, “Machines can’t tell the ‘accuracy’ of content. Our systems rely instead on signals we find align with relevancy of topic and authority.” One could interpret that to mean that if Google cannot tell the accuracy of content, that it would be unable to use accuracy as a ranking factor.

Upon closer look at the context of Illyes comments this week, it’s clear he’s getting at the second part of Sullivan’s comment about using signals to understand “relevancy of topic and authority.” SEO Marie Haynes captured more of the context of Illyes’ comment.

Illyes was talking about YMYL (your money, your life) content. He added that Google goes through “great lengths to surface reputable and trustworthy sources.”

He didn’t outright say Google’s systems are able to tell if a piece of content is factually accurate or not. He implied Google uses multiple signals, like signals that determine reputations and trustworthiness, as a way to infer accuracy.

So is content accuracy a ranking factor? Yes and no. It depends if you are being technical, literal, figurative or explanatory. When I covered the different messaging around content accuracy on my personal site, Sullivan pointed out the difference, he said on Twitter “We don’t know if content is accurate” but “we do look for signals we believe align with that.”

It’s the same with whether there is an E-A-T score. Illyes said there is no E-A-T score. That is correct, technically. But Google has numerous algorithms and ranking signals it uses to figure out E-A-T as an overall theme. Sullivan said on Twitter, “Is E-A-T a ranking factor? Not if you mean there’s some technical thing like with speed that we can measure directly. We do use a variety of signals as a proxy to tell if content seems to match E-A-T as humans would assess it. In that regard, yeah, it’s a ranking factor.”

You can see the dual point Sullivan is making here.

The minutiae. When you have people like me, who for almost 16 years, analyze and scrutinize every word, tweet, blog post or video that Google produces, it can be hard for a Google representative to always convey the exact clear message at every point. Sometimes it is important to step back, look at the bigger picture, and ask yourself, Why is this Googler saying this or not saying that?

Why we should care. It is important to look at long term goals, and as I said above, not chase the algorithm or specific ranking factors but focus on the ultimate goals of your business (money). Produce content and web pages that Google would be proud to rank at the top of the results for a given query and other sites will want to source and link to. And above all, do whatever you can to make the best possible site for users — beyond what your competitors produce.


About The Author

Barry Schwartz is Search Engine Land’s News Editor and owns RustyBrick, a NY based web consulting firm. He also runs Search Engine Roundtable, a popular search blog on SEM topics.



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